WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 1

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

Hey everyone, it’s 2015! Didja notice? Yep, it’s a symmetrical year three fourths of the way through the first fifth of the new millennium! I find that this is making me, and plenty of other people I’ve spoken to, think about numbers, halfway points, anniversaries, etc. For me, this year marks the major anniversary of a lot of key things in my life and career, and I plan to write about some of those right here at the Mule. It’s gonna be fun, so saddle up and take this trip with me, through the past, smartly! Not that I feel like acknowledging my age or anything, but I would say I have been a true “music fan” for 50 years now. As a bonafide baby boomer, I grew up in the ’60s listening to all that classic stuff that makes the “Best Ever” lists these days. Sometime in 1965, probably after the Beatles’ RUBBER SOUL album came out, I became aware of music in a bigger way than before. It was no longer just the radio hits my sisters were listening to incessantly on AM, now they were buying albums (mostly the Beatles at first), and the repeated playing of these began to affect my young ears with increasing intensity. I love melodies and good singing, and everyone at the time was into the Beatles. A new era was upon us, and it was exhilarating.

What I thought I would do to celebrate my 50 years of being an active listener, is pick the 25 albums that influenced me the most. Here at the Mule, we like to take things personally, that’s why a conventional list of “Best of All Time” or “Best of the Decade,” that kinda thing, is not much fun to do. Stuff like that is all over the web or in your latest issue of ROLLING STONE. And though fun, that kind of clinical exercise can get tedious. But if I tell you I’m going to make a list of 25 albums that truly affected my life, that either set something in motion, changed me or altered my musical taste in some way, well, I get all tingly just thinking about that. The list could be much longer, of course, but it’s important to have parameters. And I like the symmetry of “25 in 50,” ie: The 25 recordings that had the greatest personal impact in 50 years of listening. You will encounter some of the great classics in here, and you’ll also read about stuff you never heard of. Maybe you’ll be shocked that there are no Dylan, Rolling Stones or Beach Boys albums on my list. I’ll say it again, this is NOT a list of the most influential albums, period. It’s a list of what most influenced ME, and made my musical life what it is. This is a thoughtful, personal exercise, and I hope you’ll enjoy sharing it with me. Maybe it will encourage some of you to think about what music most made a difference to YOU, and affected your personality the most. Fun, right? Making something all about YOU is more honest and real than those tedious “Best of” lists. So, here we go. These albums will roughly be listed in the order that I encountered them, although I can’t absolutely swear to that. But… all of these works helped make me whatever and whoever the heck I am today. Enjoy!

1. THE BEATLES: REVOLVER

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

Although SERGEANT PEPPER… is usually cited as the greatest Beatles album, the 1966 classic REVOLVER had a bigger impact on me. It was the Fabs entering their psychedelic period, and my sisters, Therese and Pam, played this album all the time. I was fascinated by the unusual sounds on it (“Tomorrow Never Knows” was utterly hypnotic, as were the strings on “Eleanor Rigby”), and classic gems of songcraft like “Good Day Sunshine,” “I Want To Tell You” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” became lodged firmly in my young mind. I feel sad for people who never know the experience of growing up with a classic album like this.

How it influenced me: Gave me perhaps my first experience of enjoying an album all the way through, with melodies and sounds that seeped deep into my brain.

2. THE BEATLES: THE BEATLES (WHITE ALBUM)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

Barely two years after REVOLVER, the Beatles had evolved so much that it was almost dizzying to a budding music fan at the time. By 1968, only my sister Therese was still home among my siblings, and this album got constant play. It was a weird, unsettling, enthralling experience to listen to it back then. I vividly remember a couple of times when I fell asleep on the extra bed in Therese’s room absorbing the strange, diverse tracks on this album. Each side had a unique flow; some songs rocked out (“Back in the USSR,” “Glass Onion”), some songs were folksy and pretty (“Mother Nature’s Son,” “Julia”) and some were scary and from a place I yearned to know more about (“Long Long Long,” “Revolution 9″) What a remarkable sonic journey this double album took fans on! Nobody at the time talked about the “divisions” within the Beatles, or how “self-indulgent” the album was. We simply ate it up, listened with fascination, and marveled at the new age of rock that was now dawning.

How it influenced me: The first massive song collection I ever lost myself in, with unforgettable moments across the musical spectrum, including the first moments on record to scare the crap out of me (the moaning sounds at the end of “Long Long Long” and the entire “Revolution 9″). Hearing dark, weird sounds on a record began for me, oddly, with the Fab Four.

3. THE MONKEES: PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

In the late 60s, the Monkees were the OTHER band that captured the lion’s share of attention in my circles. We all knew the hits like we knew the shrubs in our front yard, and we watched the MONKEES TV show faithfully. This 1967 album was a superb collection of tunes that got constant play in my neighborhood. The previous Monkees albums seemed more like collections of big hits, but this one headed into some new territory. “Star Collector” was downright psychedelic, and Davy Jones sang it! “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was simply one of the best songs ever, ever, ever, one of the first songs to become a solid favorite for me. And many others stood out, like the minor-key laden “Words,” the Nesmith classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” and the Nilsson gem “Cuddly Toy,” which, decades later, would become a song I would sometimes perform live when I became a musician myself.

How it influenced me: A solid soundtrack to my childhood, full of innocence, whimsy and suburban dreams.

4. TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS: THE BEST OF…

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

From 1967 to 1970, Tommy James was a fixture on radio, with classic hit after classic hit. They were often in the summer, becoming wondrous summer classics like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Crimson and Clover.” At every swimming pool where radio was in the background, Tommy James was a part of the atmosphere. And the first song I ever declared to be my personal favorite, was “Sweet Cherry Wine.” This song absolutely captivated me, and I would sometimes wait for it to come on the radio, getting very emotional when it did. It was a beautifully produced song, with background vocals that got under my skin and never left my memory. THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS was, I believe, the first album I bought with my own money. It’s possible a Monkees album preceded it in that regard; memory can be sketchy. But it was unquestionably the first hits collection I ever bought, and the first non Beatles or Monkees music to get repeat play in my life. A soundtrack for the year 1969 in particular.

How it influenced me: The sound of the last year before I became a teenager. The first record to actively make me aware of the magic of background vocals. A collection of songs I truly, truly could listen to over and over.

5. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: BOOKENDS and BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (tie)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

If you become a musician, some influences don’t become apparent to you right away; you might have to work on developing your style and think about the kinds of songs you want to do, before the stylistic touchstones become obvious. I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, and all but their first album were regular spins at our home in Kirkwood. Most of their songs struck me as sad, intimate and evocative, and the musical personality they presented… the tight harmonies, the sometimes quirky lyrics… was vivid and powerful. These two albums affected me about equally, the former for its melancholy musings on the passing of time (“Old Friends,” “Bookends”) and quirky sing-alongs (“Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo”), the latter for its epic production and exhilarating musical dramas (“Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” “The Boxer,” the title track). This was one of a clutch of albums I listened to a great deal with an early girlfriend in 1972; such things stay with you. Years later, I fell in love with a girl actually NAMED Cecilia, and that song became significant in a very personal way. More importantly, Paul Simon’s songwriting stood out for me as artful, impactful stuff, and he is one of the composers I always mention as an influence on my own music and aesthetic.

6. CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: DEJA VU

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

They were called the “first big supergroup,” “the American Beatles” and more. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were not destined to sustain the kind of impact such lofty labels created expectations for, but they made this one incredible studio album as a foursome. It was a 1970 classic, and that year they were omnipresent. Every song was amazing, and the potency of their musical personalities was overwhelming if you were a fan of singer/songwriters. I was, and this album, plus the live album FOUR WAY STREET, essentially planted the seeds of my own desire to write songs. From the iconic cover photo to the peerless harmonies to the counterculture sass, this was an unmissable classic of its time. And that guy Neil…

How it influenced me: The songwriting. The personalities. The times!

7. NEIL YOUNG: HARVEST

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

It’s really not easy picking one Neil Young album for my list. Considering that Neil Young is one of the two most important and influential musicians in my entire life, it seems inadequate to talk about one album. It actually could have been ANY of his first four: the NEIL YOUNG debut, the epic Crazy Horse workout EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE in 1969, the popular fan favorite AFTER THE GOLDRUSH from 1970. All had an impact, but HARVEST was one of my high school soundtracks. I listened to it with my first real girlfriend. I was profoundly affected by Neil’s singing and arrangements throughout, and, quite simply, I was a different person by the time I fully absorbed this album. Neil Young was the first singer/songwriter I claimed as my own, the first to pervade my life and shift my understanding of the craft of songwriting. I memorized everything on this album; it became a huge soundtrack for me. I even liked the orchestration on “There’s a World,” which some reviewers lambasted. Everything in my music life changed after Neil Young; he’s even the artist that got me interested in reading reviews, which then led to my writing career. His influence was profound.

8. PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

If you were in high school in the early to mid-’70s, Pink Floyd were a staple. FM radio played them all the time, and the longhairs and tokers were ALWAYS talking about them. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON was one of the first albums to become a genuine phenomenon, and it was absolutely everywhere when I was in high school. I was intrigued enough by the band to research all their earlier work, and I found their 1971 classic MEDDLE. That’s the one that burrowed into my brain. The trilogy of atmospheric gems on side one: “A Pillow of Winds,” “Fearless” and “San Tropez” stirred me with their smooth vocals, melancholy arrangements and haunted romanticism. I found these tracks more than a little compelling. And, as for “Echoes,” the spacey side-long excursion that graced side two, well, it was the first immersive space rock spectacle I had encountered, a headphone extravaganza for many of us buying our first stereo systems at the time. Progressive rock had arrived, and so had a plethora of mysterious sounds we’d never heard the likes of before, us teens.

How it influenced me: The dawn of headphones-ready space rock, David Gilmour and Rick Wright creating a perfect sonic template to serve Roger Waters’ lyrical ideas, and the important notion that something could be epic and intimate at the same time in music.

9. YES: CLOSE TO THE EDGE

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

And they WERE, too. Close to the edge of sonic possibilities at the time, as evidenced by the side-long title track that pretty much blew everyone’s mind. I didn’t truly listen to Yes with any depth until 1973, but CLOSE TO THE EDGE became a staple. Progressive rock was becoming one of the most popular genres, with Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and others dominating the talk among hardcore music fans at the time. With musicianship on a scale hardly imagined before, Jon Anderson’s soaring voice and “out there” lyrics, and passages of music that were so hypnotic and evocative that they could be said to represent the beginning of the power of “ambient sound” (which would transform my life a few years later), Yes were unrvaveling layers of new possibilities in music. I ate it all up, shared it with friends, and even began trying to memorize some of the more interesting lyrics.

How it influenced me: The mystical, far-reaching “subjects,” the compelling lyrics, the incredible purity of Jon Anderson’s voice, the early ambient sounds.

10. BLACK SABBATH: SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

I was never much into what was called “heavy metal,” although both Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were huge during my teen years. I have no idea what first got me into Black Sabbath, but I listened to MASTER OF REALITY pretty often with the same girlfriend I mentioned in an early paragraph, and it had a lot of mystery about it. The heaviness of the riffs and the darker themes were quite compelling to me. I started reading some of the reviews of Black Sabbath, and by the time their fifth album came out, I was a senior in high school and a budding amateur musician. There seemed to be something of real substance to SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH to my ears at the time, and I even liked Ozzy Osbourne’s shrill voice. The oddest thing that happened, though, is that I began trying to play a couple of the songs on piano. I’d had a year or so of lessons, and I would occasionally try to just “pick out” chords or melodies from popular songs. Came up with my own versions of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and, inexplicably, “Sabbra Cadabra” from the Black Sabbath album. I was playing controlled double octaves, and I was doing it with all the energy I possessed. I had the structure of this song down pretty well! It got to the point where this was pretty impressive, I suppose, because I played it at a couple of parties and for a number of friends, who always seemed to clap. Inadvertently, Black Sabbath had given me my first taste of what it might be like to be a musician. That’s influential, ain’t it?

11. BRIAN ENO: DISCREET MUSIC

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

In a month or two, I’ll be doing a piece on Brian Eno for this site, so I don’t want to go into undue detail right now. But… people who know me, know that Eno is the single most influential musical artist of my life, just a shade more than Neil Young because of the differing STREAMS of influence he had. This 1975 album was a game changer, to say the least, and of earthshaking importance in my life. Try to imagine what it would be like to have your actual dreams and subconscious memories represented in musical terms. That’s what Eno’s first true “ambient” recording did for me. Consisting of wispy, ethereal, repeating and interweaving synth melodies, what Eno came up with was so new and different that no one really knew what to do with it at the time. I did, though. I listened to it late at night both through headphones and without. I played it any time I had a hangover, and the hangover would miraculously go away. I listened to it when I felt depressed, and I felt that, somehow, there was a force out there that understood me. “Miracle music,” I began to call this stuff, and it launched my lifetime love affair with ambient music. How did it influence me? In every possible way as a music listener. It asked questions that many people are STILL trying to answer. And a whole new world had opened up that I walked into with an open mind and open ears…

12. JONI MITCHELL: HEJIRA

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

By 1976, the legendary Joni Mitchell was exploring jazz stylings more and more in her music, and she was well past the stage of having conventional “hits” (1974’s COURT AND SPARK was her last album to feature anything like that). I’d been a fan, but HEJIRA was more than just a new album by a songwriter I loved; it was a restless travelogue by an artist at the peak of her powers. Songs such as “Amelia” (which referenced ill-fated pilot Amelia Earhart), “Song for Sharon” and “Refuge of the Road” really stirred me with their ruminations on life, memories and uncertainty, and furthered a growing desire I had to write meaningful things myself. If that weren’t enough, I fell in love with a girl not long after this that looked very much LIKE Joni Mitchell, and kind of worshipped her. So, me with my Neil Young obsession and this girl with her Joni fixation, began comparing notes and trading insights on our idols. It was heady stuff, and although it ended badly, this Joni Mitchell album in particular captured something emotionally potent that was not only on the recording itself, but echoed through my own personal life. And the lyrics of that “Refuge of the Roads” song are brilliant and sobering.

13. TELEVISION: MARQUEE MOON

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

Something strange and mysterious was going on in New York City in the mid ’70s, and my cousin Roxanne, who lived there, started talking to me about it. There were a lot of new bands playing at a club called CBGB’s, and Roxanne and I, who were already close partially due to shared letters and phone calls about relationships and the music we loved, began going to that club and others in NYC, regularly. A band called Television was getting a great deal of attention, and I didn’t think too much about this until I went to New York myself in 1977 and got to see them, with my cousin and my brother Kyle along for the experience. There’s a thing that happens when you see a band that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. You get transported, you have your mind blown, and it expands your reference points for the old sonic vocabulary. Television had two incredible guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, and the mesmerizing interplay of the two lead guitars, coupled with bizarre, evocative lyrics and Verlaine’s charisma on stage, was unforgettable for anyone who saw the band. The term “new wave” was created to try to label bands like this; “punk” just wasn’t cutting it. These guys were musicians, and they were reaching for something out there that the punk bands couldn’t care less about. Roxanne sang me her favorite lyrics from the band over and over, even my snobby brother was affected, and I was left reeling by yet another brand new rock sound. The MARQUEE MOON album came out later in 1977 and took the indie music scene by storm. Some of the best guitar work ever played was on this album.

How it influenced me: By generating understanding of the far-reaching drama that two electric guitars could generate, seeing the experience of people getting swept away by music in the dingiest of dingy Bowery clubs (at a legendary time in rock music history), and by raising the stakes for underground music, which was also to generate so much press that the mere READING of reviews and articles at this time became an experience unto itself.


TOMMY JAMES: A TALK WITH THE ’60S ICON ABOUT HIS SURPRISING CAREER

(SOON TO BE A SCORSESE-PRODUCED MOVIE)

Tommy James

Story and interview by KEVIN RENICK, writing for The Mule

Children, behave!/That’s what they say when we’re together.” “Look over yonder, what do you see?/The sun is a-risin’/Most definitely.” “C’mon everyone, we got to get together now./ Oh yeah, love’s the only thing that matters anyhow.” If you’re of a certain age, you know those lyrics as the opening verses of some of the most beloved and successful pop songs of all time, and chances are you can sing the rest of the words with no trouble. For those compositions are just part of the amazing pop catalogue of Mister Tommy James, one of the most successful recording artists of all time. James had an unprecedented series of major hits in the 1960s: “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball of Fire,” “Draggin’ the Line.” And those are just the HUGE hits, there were many, many others that charted. But among the countless surprises in James’ career is how so many of his songs had a second life due to all the cover versions: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts scored a Top 10 hit with “Crimson and Clover” in 1981, teen star Tiffany scored her biggest hit with a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and new waver Billy Idol had a dance floor smash with his incendiary take on “Mony Mony.” Both of the latter were in the late ’80s, and kept James’ name out there despite all the changes in the music industry. This is not to even mention the many James compositions that ended up in movies and TV shows. His songs have truly been omnipresent in the history of American rock and roll.

Nothing, however, is as startling all these years later as the too-weird-to-be-believed saga of James’ years at Roulette Records, which it turns out, was a front for organized crime. In his suspense-filled 2010 autobiography ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC: ONE HELLUVA RIDE WITH TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, James not only gives plenty of interesting details about his hits themselves, he tells a tale of being under the thumb of mobsters like Morris Levy that is so gripping, it sounds like something Martin Scorsese would dream up. In fact, the DENVER POST called the book “the music industry version of GOODFELLAS.” Not only that, one of Scorsese’s producers, Barbara DeFina (who worked on GOODFELLAS, CASINO and CAPE FEAR) is set to produce the James film. It’s all pretty heady, enthralling stuff for an amiable kid from Niles, Michigan who just wanted to play music.

CoverArt-book

Tommy James was born Thomas Gregory Jackson in 1947, and though born in Dayton, Ohio, his family moved to Niles early on. He was a child model at the age of four, and formed his first band, the Tornadoes, when he was only 12. Soon after, the band changed their named to the Shondells. In 1964, a local DJ, at WNIL in Niles, named Jack Douglas launched a small label, Snap Records, which recorded some early Shondells tunes. One of these was “Hanky Panky,” a catchy little ditty penned by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Some locals dug it, but there was no budget for promotion at the time, and the song was largely forgotten about. But in the first of countless legendary incidents in James’ stellar career, something unpredictable happened. In 1965, Bob Mack, who was a local dance promoter in Pittsburgh, found a copy of “Hanky Panky” in a used record bin, and began playing it at his dance clubs. An enterprising bootlegger then started pressing copies of the disc, and it sold an estimated 80,000 copies in Pittsburgh in ten days. By early 1966, the tune was Number One on Pittsburgh radio. And, after James got word of what was happening and flew to Pennsylvania to meet with Mack and Chuck Rubin (the talent booker for Mack’s clubs), the resulting promotional efforts led “Hanky Panky” all the way to the top of the singles charts by July of 1966. Much had already changed for James by then; he no longer even had the services of the original Shondells. But Tommy met a five-man group called the Raconteurs at the Thunderbird Club in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and found great chemistry with them. So the rechristened Tommy James and the Shondells started doing shows and shopping for record labels. Rubin, an experienced industry type, suggested they go to New York, where the majority of the key labels were located. And one of their last stops was Roulette Records. The head of the label, Morris Levy, was initially out of town and James and company heard nothing back at first. Oh, but the story was to get so much more interesting than the young Tommy could ever imagine, and we should hear it right from him.

Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)

Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)

Suffice to say that James was soon recording all those classic hits that every baby boomer has memorized, and achieving his wildest, most improbable dreams… although not quite the way he imagined. I was lucky enough to speak with James by phone last fall, and I began our talk by telling him how much his music meant to me in the late ’60s. I had a particular obsession with the song “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which I thought was beautiful and produced just brilliantly. That song was my favorite of the year in 1969, and the first album I can ever remember buying with my own money was THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, released that year. James is an amiable, charming person in conversation, and he is well aware of how incredible his story is. He’s involved in the ongoing development of the movie based on his life and book, and he still tours and releases new music. I first met James in the late ’70s, when I attended a New Year’s Eve show he was performing while I suffered from a horrible cold. James said he played in Saint Louis the first time in 1966, but couldn’t remember the venue. What follows is an edited version of our lengthy interview.

THE MULE: Tommy, it is so amazing to talk with you. I wanted to start out by telling you how much I loved “Sweet Cherry Wine” back in the ’60s. It was really one of the first songs that gave me chills, every time. I couldn’t wait to hear it on the radio when I listened.

TJ: Well thank you. It’s as close as we ever got to a protest song. It’s a semi-religious song. There was no such thing as being politically correct back in the ’60s. The singles that you did, and we were basically doing singles then, were like snapshots of where you were as a human being. That was one of the songs in the mix between the CRIMSON AND CLOVER album and CELLOPHANE SYMPHONY, the magic year of 1969. All the records we did were so different from one another. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” was so different from “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which was in 3/4 time and, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was so different from “Crimson and Clover.” We outsold the Beatles with singles.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s amazing. And things were so crazy back then, the way rock and roll was progressing.

TJ: In late 1968, we were out on the road with Hubert Humphrey, we did the presidential campaign. And the whole industry changed from singles to albums in the 90-day period we were out with him. In August of ’68, when we left, all the major acts were singles acts… Gary Puckett, the Buckinghams, the Rascals and us and the Association. And we came back 90 days later and it was Blood Sweat and Tears, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills and Nash. The world had turned upside down in the music business. So we were very lucky to be working on “Crimson and Clover” at that very moment. Because that single allowed us to make the jump from singles to albums, from “Top 40” to FM progressive album rock. I don’t think there’s any other single we ever did that would have allowed us to do that in one shot like that.

Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: “Crimson and Clover” and then, “Sweet Cherry Wine.” I wanted to say that those songs were among the first I remember hearing where background vocals were a key texture and added to the haunting nature of the song. You were doing something unique, I couldn’t even explain it at the time, but those background harmonies were amazing. Can you explain a little about what you were trying to do?

TJ: As music got more and more complicated, the background parts became actually almost part of the lead. With “Crimson and Clover,” it happened almost by accident. Basically, we had done the record with tremolo and we put it together really quickly. With tremolo on the guitar, that was sort of the signature sound. When we got to the end, we had the fade, we knew what was going to be there. We just decided to throw tremolo on it. So, we actually recorded the backgrounds straight, and then piped ‘em out through the guitar amp, and then mic’d the guitar amp, turned on the tremolo like we’d done with the guitars, and brought it back thru the board. The point was, it became sort of the signature sound of the record and it became our biggest selling single.

Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968

Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968

THE MULE: Do you have a personal favorite story about a song from back then? About where something came from, for example?

TJ: Well, we’re doing a movie. We’re gonna try to put as much of this stuff in the movie as we can.

THE MULE: I read that. It sounds amazing. Wasn’t Scorsese interested in the film?

TJ: His producer, Barbara DeFina, is going to produce our movie. She produced HUGO, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, CAPE FEAR. She’s an incredible talent. She’s doing the movie of the book.

THE MULE: And you’re a consultant on it?

TJ: Sure, sure. And we’re going to be working very closely with the screenplay writer, Matthew Stone. Over the next few months or so, the screenplay will be put together. And also, we have several more stories that will be in the movie, than we had time for in the book.

THE MULE: I read your book with amazement, I gotta say. I just couldn’t believe it. I never knew any of that stuff about the mob, I just liked your music so much. And my jaw dropped as I read about all those shenanigans you went through with Morris Levy. How did you even keep your cool?

TJ: Well, what it boiled down to is that we constantly had to ask ourselves if it would be smarter to get out of this thing. When we were first approaching record labels in New York, “Hanky Panky,” our first record, sort of exploded out of Pittsburgh. Really unexpectedly so. I grabbed the first bar band I could find because I couldn’t put the original group back together. We were in NY two weeks later and we made the rounds of all the record companies to try to get a national or international deal. So, this is spring of 1966. I’m 19 years old and we get to New York, and we’re taken around by a couple of people who had been in the business a long time. We got a yes from CBS, RCA, Atlantic. And Kama Sutra who were hot at the time. And the last place we took the record to was Roulette. And you know, at the end of the day we didn’t pay much attention. I thought it would be great to be with Columbia Records, one of the big corporate labels at the time. So, I went to bed that night feeling real good. And we woke up the next morning, and all of a sudden all the record companies that had said YES the day before, suddenly said, “Tom, I’m afraid we’re gonna have to pass.” And I said, “What d’ya mean you’re gonna have to pass? I thought we had a deal!” And finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us the truth, that Morris Levy at Roulette Records had called all the other companies, and basically backed them down. (James speaks in a low-pitched mobster voice) “’This is my fuckin’ record company, back off!” And they did. Red flags went up right there… what was so special about Roulette? We’d heard rumors, but didn’t believe it. But apparently, we were gonna be on Roulette, because the first offer, we couldn’t refuse! (he laughs) All of a sudden, we started recognizing people we were doing business with. We’d meet somebody up in Morris’ office, and a week later we’d see them on the TV news being taken out of a warehouse in New Jersey in handcuffs. Y’know… “Didn’t we just see them in Morris’ office?”

Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)

Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)

THE MULE: That is NOT exactly what a musician hopes for from their first label.

TJ: No! Roulette was basically a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. In addition to being a functioning record label. But if we had gone with one of the corporate labels, I’ll tell you what would’ve happened. We would have been turned over to an in-house A&R guy and that’s probably the last that anyone would have heard of us. Especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.”

THE MULE: Oh, that’s hard to believe. You think so? So, was that sort of the trade off you had to make, that you were sacrificing money for the artistic freedom you were given?

TJ: Sure. But we didn’t know that at first. It took us a while to realize that we weren’t going to get mechanical royalties. We weren’t gonna get paid for all this. Of course, we made money from all kinds of other directions, like touring, commercials. All that. But mechanical royalties, no. We had to constantly ask ourselves if we wanted to take our life in our hands and try to get outta this thing. Or, because we were having such great success there, if we could just keep our mouth shut and go along, and have the hits. Because we were making so much money in other areas, like touring. I think we made the right decision to stay. ‘Cause it worked out for us. Plus, I get to tell the story now. But we ended up doing about $110 million in record sales with Roulette.

THE MULE: There was a point in the book that was really cathartic, when you finally told Levy off after years of being kinda screwed, and not getting the money you earned. It felt like a big moment.

TJ: (He laughs) I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing. Because the truth is, every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy and Roulette, I have to stop myself. The truth is, if it hadn’t been for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. That is true. However, having said that, there were a lot of bitter feelings. And there was a lot of danger up there. It was a dangerous place to be.

Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)

Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: You mean like, were there times you feared for your life?

TJ: Yes! One of the times, y’know, they were having this big gang war in New York. The Gambino family was taking over, and Morris was on the wrong side. And Morris left for Spain and wasn’t heard from for almost a year. And the rest of us were just left holding the bag at Roulette. So, my attorney told me flat out, “I think it would be a real good idea if you left town ’til this damn thing blows over.” There was almost 300 people killed. Bodies were flying around all over the place. He said, “If they can’t get Morris, they’re likely to go after what’s making Morris money, and that’s YOU.” So I said, “Oh, that’s freakin’ great!” So I had to go to Nashville. I went to Nashville and did an album with Elvis’ guys. That was in 1971. And then I get back, thinking everything was over, and Tommy Eboli, Morris’ partner, who was the head of the family by that time, all of a sudden he gets killed. That’s when I exploded. I said, “I gotta get out of here. I’m done.” But Morris wasn’t gonna let me go. He said (low voice again) “You’re not goin’ anywhere.” So, I basically went about destroying my own career. Essentially, I stopped making any more records for Morris. I’d write stuff and ,sometimes I’d record it, but I wouldn’t turn it in.

THE MULE: That was purposeful on your part?

TJ: Oh yeah. God, yes. It was a horrible thing to have to do. But I finally got out by 1974. I went with Fantasy Records, on the west coast. But, we were just real lucky to make it out of there in one piece. So the gist of the book and the movie is, that here we are, trying to have this career in rock and roll, with this dark and sinister and frightening story going on behind the scenes, and we can’t talk about it.

THE MULE: There can’t be too many rock stars whose career went like this. It’s quite unique!

TJ: Probably true. When we started writing the book, Martin Fitzpatrick, my co-author and I, we were originally gonna call the book CRIMSON AND CLOVER, we were gonna write about the hits, and making records and writing songs, and that would’ve been great. But we got about a third of the way into it and,, we realized that if we don’t tell the whole Roulette story, we’ll be cheating ourselves and everybody else. I was very nervous about finishing the thing. Cause some of these guys were still walking around. And it’s not like we were talking about a huge amount of criminal activity. I mean, there was some. But the fact you were talking about this stuff could’ve gotten you killed. So I was nervous. And we put it on the shelf for about three years. And finally, in 2006, the last of the Roulette regulars as I called them, passed on. And we finally felt like we could finish the book, which took us two or three years to do. When we did, we immediately got a deal with Simon and Schuster. They just gobbled it right up.

Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: And you started getting all those royalties that you were cheated out of before.

TJ: Of course. But then, at the end of all that, we started getting calls for the movie rights and for the Broadway rights. It’s gonna be a Broadway show after that. So, this is gonna be a real interesting time.

THE MULE: What kind of a shift, aesthetically, happened for you with your music after the Roulette era ended?

TJ: Well, in the ’70s, by that time music itself had changed. We kind of went with that flow. The band and I had broken up in 1970, so I was by myself doing this. The first place I went was Fantasy, and we had two albums out there. They did pretty well for us. Fantasy was a great place to be, an interesting place. Couldn’t be any further geographically from Roulette than it was. And then. after those two records, I came back to New York and signed with Millennium Records, which was RCA. And had three more chart records, one went number one, “Three Times in Love,” in 1980. We were very lucky because I took three years off in 1981 and sort of collected my publishing and got a lot of my masters back. And it was really a good time creatively. Finally, in 1988, I began recording again. We were getting all kinds of cover records in the 1980s. A lot of movies and stuff. And I released a record in 1990, the HI-FI album. That did very well for us. And that’s kind of where the book ends, in 1990. ‘Cause that’s when Morris died. He was indicted in 1986, and was put on trial in 1988. And he lost. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But, he died before he could serve any time. He died of colon cancer in 1990.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Did you ever have any final conversation with him during those days?

TJ: The end of the book and of the movie are gonna be quite touching. Because, basically, what happened is that he asked for me. As I’m rushing out the door to do a gig in Chicago – this actually happened – the first gig on this promotional tour that I was doing for the HI-FI album. It was the first album I’d put out in 10 years, so it was a big deal. And Morris was asking for me. I didn’t realize how sick he was. And Howard (an accountant at Roulette Records) said, “If you wanna see him, you better get up to the farm right away.” So I said, well okay, I’ll be back the next day. And he died that night. So I never officially got a chance to say goodbye to him. The last scene in the movie is going to be, where I am telling this story. In the book, I’m actually telling the story after he died, to a reporter there in Chicago. I go down from the theatre, about two in the morning. It’s a beautiful, crisp night in Chicago. And I’m by myself. And we’re gonna go back to the hotel. The limo driver is snoozing. And I get in the back of the limo, and I sort of have this imaginary conversation with Morris. This is at the end of the movie, and I get a chance to say goodbye to him that way. The funny part is, in the film, at the very end, the closing credits happen right then. And the limo takes off, you can see the Chicago skyline. And the credits start rolling. And this new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that I did with the original Shondells. I brought them up from Pittsburgh. Took ‘em in the studio, and we did this slow, beautiful version of the song at the end.

THE MULE: Oh man, that gives me chills.

TJ: The funny part is, the words work so well. Because Morris was gone, and we’re alone now! It worked so well in this somber moment, just as well as they did in the original teeny bop love song from the ’60s.

Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

THE MULE: There are three of the Shondells still alive, right?

TJ: Yes. Mike, Ronnie and Eddie. Course, I’m out on the road now every year with a new group of Shondells.

THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about one of the many covers of your songs… there’s been a zillion. But, the Billy Idol version of “Mony Mony,” which became a huge dance hit. You surely knew about this obscene four-line chant, that people started doing in the song. How did that come about?

TJ: That happened on a spring break by a bunch of kids from Chicago, who went down to Fort Lauderdale during the ’70s. And they started doing that to the song. I don’t know… it was amazing, they would sometimes do that when I was onstage. And I thought I was getting booed offstage. That just kinda happened, one of those spontaneous things the college kids just made up.

THE MULE: Two other funny things I read. You actually said NO to George Harrison about something in 1968? What was that all about?

TJ: Well it wasn’t that I said no. George Harrison wrote with a group he was producing, called Grapefruit. What happened was, when the Beatles started Apple, it started out as a publishing company before it was a record company. And their idea was to write songs for all their friends. For other artists. That was the original reason for Apple. George wrote me a bunch of songs. “Mony Mony” had been the biggest record of the decade in England. It was actually bigger over there than it was here. So, they wrote me oh, eight or ten songs. But they all sounded like “Mony Mony”. They brought ‘em over here and delivered ‘em to my manager. At that time, we had moved on to “Crimson and Clover,” to sort of another sound. And so I never really got a chance to do those songs. And I felt terrible, I never got a chance to thank George for what he had done. I just always felt bad about that.

THE MULE: Another thing I did not know. You almost died in 1970, right?

TJ: Well, that’s true. I collapsed onstage in Alabama. That was real scary. I was popping a lot of uppers at the time. And they all caught up with me onstage. I was lucky I didn’t have a heart attack. It was close.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the more recent songs. I was struck by “Megamation Man.” It’s an interesting song, with that little boy’s voice on it. Was he one of your kids, or just a kid you found?

TJ: No, it was one of the kids of my engineer, with whom I was making the record at the time. I wrote that song back in 1994, actually. It got recorded about ten years later. And it’s about what’s called the new world order. I guess you could call it the police state that’s being set up right now around the world.

THE MULE: Is megamation a real word?

TJ: I made it up, as far as I know. It’s about the character that scripture calls “the anti-Christ.” It’s a strange topic to be writing about in rock and roll, but I just felt the urge to do it.

THE MULE: How much do you allow politics or topical concerns to affect your music? Early on, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was an exception, but do you have a line there that you don’t want to cross when you are writing something?

TJ: Sometimes…. my view is that, when you write a song, it can come from several different places. It can be something that you imagine. But, when you write a song, you are writing a little story. No matter how trivial the lyrics, you are writing a story. It’s sort of a snapshot. It doesn’t have to be about real life. But sometimes it is. “Megamation Man” was about a topic that I felt strongly about, and wanted to make it musical. It’s not easy to do that sometimes. But every now and then, I have the urge to do that.

Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)

Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)

THE MULE: And you re-recorded a new version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” What made you do that?

TJ: My engineer came to me and was playing the piano. He’s a great musician. And he played me this sort of gospel version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” And I said, “We gotta do that.” ‘Cause, really, that’s a gospel song. And so we created a little choir, and I was just really happy with that record. In 2006, we released the HOLD THE FIRE album. And we had three top five adult contemporary records from that album. One of them went Number One, “Love Words.” And so, that was our first time back on the charts for quite some time. We were gonna release “SCW” as a single but we decided not to.

THE MULE: I also wanted to mention the song “Give It All,” which I thought was really strong. It seemed like you had reached some new kind of powerful place as a vocalist with songs like that. Did you feel that yourself?

TJ: Thank you. To me, my favorite album that I have done in the last 40 years is our Christmas album. (I LOVE CHRISTMAS, released in 2008 on Aura Records) I have never sounded better vocally. It all just came together. I recorded it with Jimmy Wisner, who I had first started making records with in 1967. Just this last Christmas, we released it on vinyl, as well. But I have been really blessed with being able to keep my voice. In my view, I’ve gotten a little better. I’ve gained almost an octave that I didn’t have as a kid. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Are you still enjoying making music just as much as in the old days?

TJ: Oh. yeah, I am. When we play on the road, I see three generations of fans at the concerts and it’s amazing.

THE MULE: Well, a lot of us grew up with your songs and just have vivid memories associated with them. There must be people that come up and tell you stories all the time, right? Poignant stories about what songs meant to them? Does anything stand out?

TJ: The funny thing is that radio was a much more intimate media than movies or TV or anything else and, your record on the radio was more intimate than anything. So, when people come up to me, they have memories attached to that song. And so do I! I feel that way about other acts during that period of time, like the Beach Boys or the Beatles. I have a lot of memories attached to the music. People feel like they know you. And your audience becomes like an extended family. It’s as close to a religious experience as you can have in rock and roll.

THE MULE: Who were some of the artists who affected or influenced you when you were coming up in music?

TJ: Oh, man… all of them. I listened to the Beach Boys’ records and I’m there. The Four Seasons. I used to PLAY a lot of that stuff, it wasn’t just listening to it. I was in cover bands in high school and so forth. So I played all this stuff. “1-2-3″ by Len Barry. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that record. It’s amazing what music does for me. I can tell you what year it was, where I was in my life, I can almost tell you what I had for dinner that night.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Well Tommy, there are so many other things I’d love to ask you, but I know we have to wind down now. Do you have certain hopes for your musical future, things that you want to accomplish that you haven’t quite done yet?

TJ: Well, you know we just started our YouTube channel. YouTube people came to me over the previous Christmas holiday and asked me if I would like to have a YouTube channel, because our catalog was so deep. And I said, “Yeah. What’s THAT?” (laughs) And they told me. And it’s all your past stuff, plus new stuff. So every two to three weeks, we put up a new video on the YouTube channel. It’s usually me talking about the song or where it came from. And we’re gonna keep putting up new music.

THE MULE: Finally, and this is silly, but I gotta ask. Does your baby still do the hanky panky?

TJ: Oh yeah. It never stopped. When we still play that record, the place kind of explodes.

Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)

By the time Tommy James was truly free of the Morris Levy craziness, he had sold millions upon millions of records, had become a household name, and found himself with a tale to tell that would give him a wildly improbable entry into the movie business. The ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC book talked about earlier is essential reading for anyone wanting to know the depth of James’ journey. James only released a few records in the 70s (the Shondells era was long over by then); these included CHRISTIAN OF THE WORLD, IN TOUCH and MIDNIGHT RIDER, but few of these yielded hits as huge as what had come before, although “Three Times in Love” was a 1980 single that made it to number 19 on the Billboard chart. But, after that, there was no new James material until 1990’s HI-FI. James’ last new album was 2006’s HOLD THE FIRE. There have been many compilations, of course; with a catalogue as deep as James’, record companies will always want to keep the reissues coming. And James has a YouTube channel well worth investigating, because he talks about various songs himself in a witty and lively manner. The link for the channel is here: www.youtube.com/user/TJShondells. James also continues to tour, both solo and with a new version of the Shondells. Although he could easily coast on his past glories, James still loves songwriting and performing, and continues to write new stuff. He’s a very lucky guy and he knows it. Despite the royalties he was once screwed out of by Morris Levy, not only was the wrong eventually righted in a way that gave James unprecedented financial security, Levy unintentionally did James a peculiar favor by making his particular tale so interesting that new life was given to the music years later, and James would get the opportunity to work with top people in film and theatre. Whatever “hanky panky” happened in the past, Tommy James is enjoying some “sweet cherry wine,” indeed, these days, and the audiences still turn out in droves for his shows. His is an amazing rock and roll tale, and we can look forward to much, much more from James in the near future. For tour dates and more, visit Tommy’s official site: www.tommyjames.com and, of course, ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC is available at all of the finest book repositories and the usual on-line places.